DCUL’s 4 State Challenge: The 2021 Edition

Cover Photo Credit: Shane (Dad Joke)

After taking a hiatus in 2020, I was excited to post the 2021 DCUL 4-state challenge. For those unfamiliar with this, it’s pretty simple: hike the 44-mile section of the AT that traverses VA, WV, MD, & PA in the same day. There is a minor caveat – one must spend the nights on either side of the hike on the trail. I sensed there was going to be a good amount of interest this year, and was delighted to see 13 folks sign up! We had a good mix of people overall: folks who had already done the challenge; DCUL’s youngest Veteran members; folks who’ve been backpacking pretty much every single weekend for some time; folks who like doing 10 by 10 etc. etc. Additionally, we were blessed to have Mark, Ashley, & Shane (Dad Joke) as our trail angels and boy did they boost us. 

A couple of logistical notes for future 4-staters that we managed to figure out in time (thanks to Steve (Baconator) & Chandler (Willy Wonka)): 

  • To leave cars at Pen Mar, you need to get an overnight pass: https://www.washco-md.net/parks-facilities/overnight-parking-pass/
  • To leave cars at Harper’s Ferry Visitor Center, you also need to register the cars either by a) calling them well in advance or b) being there in person when the visitor center is open. You also need to pay an entrance fee or have an annual pass.

After the cars were set, we hiked the 2-3 miles to the VA/WV state-line sign in the dark. Jen (Shuttle) was right – the AT near Loudon Heights had recently been re-routed. The re-route avoids a sharp climb to the ridge via a long switchback and adds ~0.5 miles. Jonathan (Shenanigans) reached the spot first and greeted the rest of the folks as they rolled in. Alexander walked in after hiking a 16 mile section AT section south of the VA/WV sign. He wondered if that was a good idea. All of us were inside our bags by 10:30 or so. 

Morning came around early at 2ish AM. Steve (Baconator) and Susanne (Cascade) were first to hit the trail around 2:15. Everyone else started around 2:45, except for Brian (B~~~~) who started around 4:45 – he planned to run sections of the hike – and Mark – he planned to leave in time to set up trail magic at I-70. The 2:45 crew made good pace descending to Harpers Ferry, navigating through the town (with some making a small navigation error), and hiking the C&O towpath. The hikers began to get separated on that first long climb, with Alex C. and I in front. Adrian joined us later, but eventually Alex C. and I pulled ahead and would continue to be in the lead for the rest of the day, exchanging it a couple of times. 

I am going to focus on my experience from here on, but would welcome everyone else to share their experience in the comments below. The section up to Gapland State park flew by fast for me – mainly since I was chatting with folks leading up to C&O and then was focused on following the trail in the dark. Things started slowing down after Gapland, but I was invigorated by daybreak and didn’t have to use the headlamp anymore. The next miles were a blur. I encountered a few hikers around the Washington Monument State Park. 

Soon, I was at the first checkpoint: I-70. Shane, Mark, and Ashely warmly greeted me and I was ready for the trail magic. I took a break, chatted for a few minutes, stuffed myself with some goodies and was ready to hit the trail. In the next section, I encountered many hikers going towards Annapolis Rocks. It also started raining lightly – it was actually pleasant since the drizzle kept the temps on the cooler side. I was also reminded of the trail being somewhat rocky. I enjoyed listening to podcasts that review games in this section. After a steep descent, I made it to Wolfsville road – checkpoint #2. I didn’t see the trail angels nearby, but Alex C. suggested they could be in the parking lot nearby and he was right. 

Another round of excellent trail magic (the highlight for me was the caramel popcorn), as the skies cleared and the sun peeked out, enhancing the foliage. Perhaps just to push me off my butt, soon it started sprinkling. I made steady progress in the next few miles, as the rain spell lasted ~30 mins. At Raven Rock road, I began the final big climb and yeah, I felt that climb. As I topped the ridge, drenched in sweat from the humidity, the temps dipped fast and the clouds opened up. Luckily, this spell didn’t last longer than 5 mins – otherwise it would have created hypothermic conditions for us. Somehow, I felt energized and made fast progress through the slick rocks. I joined Alex C. in the home stretch and soon, we were on the other side of the railway tracks, celebrating next to the MD/PA sign. Victory! 

We retraced our path to Pen Mar park. The trail angels were there already with Kyle (Water Dog), who had decided to bail at Wolfsville in anticipation of the dreadful rocks battering his feet. As a former 4-state challenge finisher, Kyle (Water Dog) was happy with his decision. We learned that the rest of the crew were on the way. We ordered pizza, cheered for the rest of the hikers passing by in varying states, & exchanged tales as the group at the park grew larger. Chandler (Willy Wonka) and Jonathan (Shenanigans) hobbled in and were glad that it was over. David O was joyous after completion – he said later that he felt ready to hike 20 miles the next day. Adrian came in next. Alex D. and Brad were initially shocked to learn that the park wasn’t the end point, but were happy after realizing the end was only 0.2 miles away. After Brian (B~~~~) finished, we surprised him by singing happy birthday and presenting a cake. Ashley had baked a delicious cake and we devoured it. The group divided itself over two areas for the night. The remaining hikers – Alexander, Steve (Baconator), and Susanne (Cascade) – continued to roll in – the last one checking in at 9:15. The next morning, we said our goodbyes. A subset of the group stopped at the Country Cafe in Harpers Ferry to enjoy a yummy breakfast! 

All in all, 12 finished the challenge successfully and etched their names permanently in DCUL glory. I am pleased with the high completion rate. Everyone duly signed the sheets at I-70 and Wolfville Rd. – that was a success for me as the trip leader. One thing we all agreed upon was that we should have hikers fill in the sheets at Pen Mar as well to capture the feeling of finishing the challenge. The challengers unanimously agreed that the trail angels played a key role in keeping the hikers rejuvenated – a huge shout-out again to Mark, Ashley and Shane (Dad Joke)! 

Updated DCUL Hall of Fame: https://dculbackpacking.com/hall-of-fame/

DCUL Photos Album Link: https://photos.app.goo.gl/bC81owYRQ8BRhvh68

-Karan (B.A.)

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